Around Town

How a 25-year-old grew an Instagram following of 370,000

Caitlin Covington looks every inch the model as she orders coffee at Seventh Street Market this weekday morning, hair and makeup perfect, lithe figure wrapped in an H&M jacquard sweater atop a white Loft tank and Hudson skinny jeans. Gold Chanel logo earrings dangle from her earlobes.

But when she’s finished her latte, she must go home and change – because 362,000 people may have already seen her in these clothes, and they’re counting on seeing her in something completely new, and inspiring, later today.

Covington, 25, has a soft voice but is a booming presence on social media. She has 374,000 followers on Instagram, where she is @cmcoving. And she has a popular blog, Southern Curls & Pearls.

[How does Covington do it? She talks about some key do’s and don’ts here.]

Visit either, and you’ll quickly get the gist. Her Southern-sweet, fashion-magazine looks and the cheery writings of a stylish best friend have become something marketers dream of: the power to influence women to buy.

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Social-media-analytics firm Ground Signal lists Covington as Charlotte’s most-followed Instagrammer outside of the city’s national-scale celebrities, like Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and TV bachelorette Emily Maynard. And her blog is bookmarked in computers from New York to New Delhi.

The result? An upper-six-figure annual income, she says.

People like Covington are a driving force in retail fashion, with followers lusting after every shade of lipstick, every handbag and skinny jean they put on. And retailers work hard to forge relationships – offering them a percentage of sales, paying them to attend events and sending them cartloads of freebies – because they know a single post can translate into thousands in sales.

Top names in blogging earn $1 million to $3 million, Women’s Wear Daily reported in January, through endorsements, promotions and sales links – and a single Instagram post of theirs can fetch $5,000 to $25,000. The “reigning queen,” says WWD, is Chiara Ferragni, with 5 million-plus Instagram followers and a site, The Blonde Salad, that raked in $2.5 million last year (plus a retail spinoff that made $10 million).

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But despite how breezy her life appears on the small screen, Covington says the workload is anything but.

She works upwards of 80 hours most weeks, she says, and “when I go on vacation, that’s when I’m working the hardest.”

She spends hours every week buying clothing, shoes, accessories and jewelry, online and in stores. (What doesn’t make the cut gets returned.) And though companies often send freebies (she estimates she gets a package every day), she says most of her posts are items she bought herself.

Photo editing is tedious and time-consuming. A simple mirror selfie that followers might assume she snapped on her way out the door actually takes hours to produce, she says: It’s not uncommon for her to take 100 pictures, analyze them to choose the best one, then edit it with VSCO or Instagram tools before hitting Send.

“The goal is to make people think, ‘She just snapped a photo.’”

Before she posts anything, she checks retailers’ websites: She wants all items in stock online in every size, to maximize sales and not frustrate followers. If they’re not in stock, she scraps the post or saves it and checks later.

Responding to emails, Instagram, Twitter and blog messages from followers – some seeking her shampoo or skincare regimen – takes time, too. “I try to respond to all of them, but I know I have 26,000 unread emails.”

Then there are public appearances, where she’s paid to show up with other bloggers, snap photos and post. Like an all-expenses-paid trip to post from the Hilton Head Island Wine & Food Festival and a trip to Charleston Fashion Week.

“It’s our goal to make it look effortless and fun and fabulous, but really we’re working so hard behind the scenes,” Covington says.

Photo: Caitlin Covington